Talk about a wide open tournament. Florida could capture it because it begins its title defense with the same crew from last year. UCLA is championship caliber because the Bruins are better than the national runner-up squad they fielded last April. Wisconsin could win it with gritty defense and Alando Tucker. Kansas is scary. So is North Carolina. Ohio State has Greg Oden. Texas has Kevin Durant. Texas A&M has Acie Law IV. Georgetown is white hot. Memphis has won 22 in a row.
That’s ten teams. Ten teams that if I had to play devil’s advocate I would wholeheartedly endorse as the next national champions.
But I’m not here for that. I’m here to be decisive. To be brash. I’m here to tell you the crazy s**t that I think is going to transpire in this tournament. So without further ado here is a region by region breakdown with notes, upsets, and picks.
Notes: Bad news everyone. Florida is baaaaack!! The Gators had a few snooze sessions this season, but have regained that Gator-pride and appear poised to defend their crown. If Florida loses it will be early and shocking (see: Arizona, second round). Still, doubtful that’s going to happen, and whoever emerges from the bottom half of the bracket (likely Wisconsin or Oregon) will find itself overmatched against a seasoned group of hungry Gators.
Upset Special: Winthrop. The Eagles are a senior-laden team that has lost only four games this year. Oh yeah, and those four L’s were to North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Texas A&M. Of those games they only got blown out by A&M. They ate their conference alive and are no strangers to the tournament out of the Big South. Don’t be fooled: Winthrop just might find itself standing between Florida and the Final Four.
Final Four Pick: Florida. It’s immensely difficult to repeat as national champs because of the structure of the tournament and the fact that elite teams usually matriculate stars to the NBA. The Gators are intact, and have a more than manageable trek to Atlanta. Winning the first four is doable for the champs. But that’s still only two thirds of the way to two in a row…
Notes: The West has the best slate of projected second round games and subplots. Kansas and Kentucky is the most notable, as the Jayhawks have made early exits the last two years, and Tubby Smith’s Wildcats won’t be an easy out. On the bottom half of the bracket is a potential rematch of the best regional game from last year, between UCLA and Gonzaga. Win or lose, Adam Morrison won’t be there to bawl at midcourt, but the Zags will certainly have revenge on their minds.
Upset Special: Holy Cross. In 2002 the Crusaders almost changed history. As a sixteen seed, they took Kansas, a one seed, down to the wire. They haven’t won a tournament game since 1953 but have been a formidable opponent in clashing with the likes of the Jayhawks, Marquette, and Kentucky in the recent past. Southern Illinois, a cinderella of the past, is currently sitting on a four seed. Like Gonzaga, the Salukis have always done their best work as a long shot. This year my bet is Southern Illinois will hear chants of “Welcome tah Woostaah!”, and have no clue what they mean.
Final Four Pick: Kansas. The Jayhawks have a strong sophomore nucleus that has felt first hand the unpredictability of the tournament. Kansas was stunned in the first round by Bradley last year. Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and Julian Wright won’t let that happen again. And history would indicate that once Kansas gets rolling, regional finals are all but a sure thing.
Notes: Without a doubt the most stacked region in my opinion. North Carolina was rewarded with a number one seed and short travel distances, but the Tar Heels have a tough road ahead. Marquette and Michigan State are far from gimmes in the second round. With this bracket featuring the likes of Texas, Georgetown, and Washington State, there are many potential speed bumps for the very deep, but very young Heels.
Upset Special: Boston College. For the first time in a handful of years, the Eagles have no expectations. Zero. Since Sean Williams was dismissed from the team, BC has been nothing short of a train wreck. So why do I like them? Matchups. A first round tilt with Bobby Knight and Texas Tech will bring out the best from ACC Player of the Year, Jared Dudley, who struggled through the latter half of the conference schedule. And mark my words: Georgetown wants no part of an old Big East rival playing with nothing to lose.
Final Four Pick: Texas. Two words: Kevin Durant. He’s the best player in the country. He’s the best player in college hoops since Carmelo Anthony. And he’s on a mission. More on that in a sec…
Notes: Florida may be the top overall seed, but Ohio State has the easiest overall path to Atlanta. Texas A&M is probably the Buckeyes’ most serious competition, but will have to knock off Louisville in Lexington, KY before entertaining any notions of Ohio State. The rest of the region is full of sleepers. Virginia could make a run with its exceptional backcourt duo of Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds. Nevada is led by an All-American, Nick Fazekas. John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers just finished colonizing Conference USA, and have an element of mystery to complement a 30-3 record.
Upset Special: Penn. Between nomadic Quaker fans and the partisan-Kentucky crowd in Lexington, Penn should have a decent support contingent. On the court Ibrahim Jaaber is one of the top point guards in the country, and can control a game by himself. Penn isn’t a big team, but is disciplined and can shoot the ball. Look for the Quakers to frustrate A&M, win the crowd as the perennial underdog, and have a chance to steal the game late.
Final Four Pick: Ohio State. Impossible to pick against the Buckeyes. Greg Oden has elevated his play of late, which is another way of saying he is gaining use of his dominant hand. He had a couple of monster games in the Big Ten Tournament, and should be eager to prove some naysayers wrong (even if he is the consensus number one pick and wears the expression of a trash collector). And don’t forget about Ohio State’s other fab freshman, Mike Conley Jr. This kid has proven he has the ability and the rocks to take and make big-time shots.
And the Winner is…
Texas. Here’s a quick story: I was at the 2003 Big East Tournament, and watched as Connecticut, led by Ben Gordon, disqualified Syracuse in the semifinals. After watching Carmelo Anthony throughout that tournament I had already determined he was the greatest college baller I had ever seen in person. What struck me at the time was watching him walk off the court at Madison Square Garden, defeated. He had a look plastered on his face. It was a combination of contained anger and silent resolve. I felt it. And I thought to myself, wow this kid looks like he’s about to make a stand. That inkling was enough for me to pencil in Syracuse as the national champs. And Melo handled the rest.
I believe Kevin Durant is about to pull a Melo of his own. He knows he’s the best. He’s shown he’s the best. And last weekend he took the proverbial sucker punch from Kansas in the Big 12 Championship. In that game he tied a career-high with 37 points, but Texas blew a huge lead and lost in overtime, 88-84. Durant didn’t score and took only two shots in the extra session. The facts are clear. No player or defensive scheme can deal with Durant. When he takes the ball, he finds a way to put it in the basket. When he has failed, it has been because the ball didn’t find him. In this tournament, not only will the ball find Durant, but when it becomes necessary, Durant will TAKE THAT ROCK.
And Texas will cut down the nets in ’07.